Barely two weeks after the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) flexed its maritime muscles by carrying out its first-ever drills in the Lombok Straits of the Indian Ocean near Indonesia, China has continued to push a new economic initiative of building a ‘maritime silk road’ linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans, in an apparent attempt to counter regional anxieties about its fast-expanding naval presence.

Chinese officials this week pushed the ‘maritime silk road’ idea in talks with visiting Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris, who welcomed the plan.

The initiative was first proposed by the new Chinese President Xi Jinping when he visited Southeast Asia in October last year. That same month, Premier Li Keqiang, who also carried out a high-profile visit to the region, announced the setting up of a 3 billion yuan ($495 million) maritime cooperation fund, part of which would support the plan.

Chinese officials themselves appear to be unclear about what exactly the plan entails, only offering general contours of the initiative such as boosting regional maritime connectivity, and cooperation on disaster mitigation and fisheries development.

Diplomats from the region say the nuts and bolts of the initiative still remain unclear. They see the plan as being more about addressing regional anxieties about China’s rise, reflected in concern over China’s attitude towards maritime disputes in the South China Sea and, in general, about its expanding naval capabilities, evinced by the recent drills in the Lombok Straits.

Zhou Bo, a Chinese strategic scholar at the Academy of Military Science, suggested as much in an article this week, saying the ‘maritime silk road’ may be a response to the “string of pearls” theory — a suggestion that China intended to build military bases in littoral countries, from Sri Lanka to Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“Nine years have since elapsed. The phrase, or theory, still sticks in the international media and in some think tank reports [although] these “bases” are found nowhere in the Indian Ocean,” he said in the essay, that was published this week on the official China.org.cn website after first appearing on the website China-U.S Focus.

Countries ranging from Russia to India and Gulf countries have all been sounded out about the idea. Shortly after the visits by Mr. Xi and Mr. Li to Southeast Asia, Chinese officials said during Prime Manmohan Singh’s Beijing trip that they also wanted India’s support for the idea.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry official told the official Xinhua news agency shortly after the visit, when both countries also discussed taking forward a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic land corridor, that “the flow of funds, goods and people through the Maritime Silk Road across the sub-continent will be identical to what happened in history, a precedent from which the two ancient countries draw wealth and strength for current cooperation.”

Mr. Zhou, the scholar, said China’s only two purposes in the Indian Ocean were “economic gains and the security of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC)”.

India and the U.S. were key for China’s objectives, he added, saying that the U.S. was unlikely to cut off China’s SLOCs with ties currently being managed. India and China were also managing their differences, he said, with “the queer idea of China encircling India from the sea with the help of Pakistan only existing in the wildest imagination of some Indian strategists.”

“Access, rather than bases, is what the Chinese Navy is really interested in the Indian Ocean. The unchartered waters of the Indian Ocean could be friendlier than the disputed waters in the Pacific,” he said.

That China’s new economic outreach faces obstacles amid persisting regional concerns about its naval ambitions was made clear recently by Cambodian officials, who have said unresolved disputes over the South China Sea could derail the plan.

Ros Chantrabot, adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, told Chinese media the plan would bring “better connectivity” and boost political and security relations. However, he also cautioned, “If the spats on the South China Sea have not been solved out peacefully, they will be still a major challenge for the initiative.”

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